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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Jason Little Discusses Lean Change

Jason Little Discusses Lean Change


1. Hi, everybody. My name is Todd Charron. I am an Agile editor here at InfoQ and today I am joined by Jason Little. Hi, Jason. How is it going?

Good. Thank you for having me.

Todd: Thank you for meeting with us. So to get us started, maybe just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Sure. My name is Jason Little. I am an Agile and organizational change practitioner at Lean Intuit and I help organizations adopt Agile practices, but looking more to holistic view of how to run their organizations. So it includes helping HR become more modern, obviously the software piece, but lately I have been taking more of a stance of organizational change as opposed to just Agile, because Agile might not be the solution for some organizations and really my stance is to help them make sense of what they need.

Todd: So your session here kind of touched on that a little bit. You were talking about taking a – what was it that you referred to it – a stone age company into a more modern era. So maybe you tell us a little bit about that. 49

Sure. Our story that I presented with our Ardita Karaj was a 14 months story about a transformation of a public sector organization and we were able to do exactly that. It started out within IT and we started to use what we call like a social campaign to start to reach outside of IT when we would start to run into blocks like job descriptions. So you want to hire people with an Agile skill set but your HR practices are set up a certain way and they are in charge of the job descriptions which makes it difficult to bring people in. That is one example. So we talked a lot about how we use things like Lean coffee to get connected to the PMO, how we got involved in HR and change management and the learning and performance groups. So what started out as a primarily IT initiative, we were able to generate a lot of demand for wanting to figure out different ways of running other parts of the organization. So we slowly, over 14 months, started creeping in those areas.


2. Maybe describe this a little bit. How did Lean coffee work for the PMO? What did you guys actually do there?

Well, we put a sign up that we are going to run a Lean coffee session and the focus of that session is to talk about the – we were calling it the Kanban transformation, so that was the label we put on it. If you had questions about Agile, Kanban, Lean or the transformation itself, show up to this informal session. We did not invite anybody, we did not do anything formal and one of the guys in the PMO actually had a background in Lean manufacturing, so he saw the word Lean and he was like: “Oh, it is pretty cool. I want to check out what you guys are doing.” I established a relationship with him, I brought him down and showed him our enterprise Kanban board and he started to look at some of the in progress tickets and of course, he is in the PMO so he says: “This one does not have any budget. Are you guys working on this?” I said “Yes. If it is in progress, yes, we are working on it.” I said “You now what? You should talk to this person over here.” All I did was to make that connection and then I backed out of it. So, part of it was dumb luck and part of it was we did a lot of activities like that to try and see who the innovators and early adopters would be, so people that we could kind of latch on to and they could take the change into their own part of the organization.


3. I see you have some momentum from there. What were some of the challenges you faced on the way, once you started doing that?

I think similar challenges to what you have heard here in a lot of the sessions is that you get support at the top and you get support at the bottom and then somewhere in the middle things kind of get lost in the mud. Those were the root of most of our challenges. It was flowing information from the top down, from the bottom up and just the state of where the organization was. They were going through a large three-year business transformation and the Kanban transformation was to develop capability to deliver on it. So, there are a lot of big changes happening at the same time, so there was a lot of confusion in the middle and communicating things out was the hardest challenge for us.


4. So how did you try to deal with that?

We used our connection with the PMO to look at implementing dynamic governance which I am not going to go into a lot of detail but it is essentially creating overlapping circles within the organization to allow for information to flow more effectively through the hierarchy and we had some success with that but again, with a number of large changes happening. It was not as optimal as we had hoped.


5. Maybe describe some of the process that you guys kind of figure out, because you mentioned at the beginning not just focusing specifically on Agile but just change management. So how did you guys approach that?

We were working with consulting companies while and they had a few of their consultants in the change management group, so we had partnered up on an Adkar assessment – Adkar is an instrument from Prosci, registered trade mark – and that helped us. Adkar is a more traditional change management method. We had just used a survey to find out what the desire is, what the awareness for the change is and they gave us some data about what areas we might experience more resistance as opposed to other places. So it helped focus what areas we should go into. That happened pretty early and then we stayed connected with that group which eventually they asked for my help on-boarding their work in a Kanban system so we actually put HR change management learning and performance, we Kanbanized all their work, they started doing stand ups, they started doing retrospectives and things like that which was a really big win for us.


6. Talking about change management and the things you had to do there, why is change management so important when you are coming in with Kanban and are coming in with all this stuff. So why was the change management side so important?

I think often, when people want to bring Agile in and they think of it as an IT thing and they do not consider that organizations in knowledge work today are networks, they are complex adaptive systems and simply trying to change IT to become an Agile organization, the impediments – from my experience anyway – is that it is stuff from outside the IT that gets in the way. So to be able to connect with change management and people in the organizational development world who have experienced change resistance and failure on transformational change for decades, it is great to take some of the learnings that they have had over the last few decades and then start to apply that to Agile transformation.


7. You spoke recently at a change management conference. What were the differences you saw in the approaches that were happening there versus what you guys were doing with your organization?

It was a pretty fun experience because the Agile crowd is more open to new ideas. There are a lot of really cool cutting edge stuff that is happening and to go into that traditional world and to see “Here is my 48 step plan driven approach to change that will ensure communication and all this stuff” it was such a complete opposite crowd from what I was used to so it really gave me a window into understanding the challenges that they face as far as transformational change that fails. But they are still applying the same plan driven approaches to doing it so my stance was to move the slider more towards feedback driven approaches. There were quite a few raised eyebrows and some people that were: “What do you mean? We have to have the plan?” So it was very interesting to see how that world operates.


8. A lot of stuff you were doing was influenced a lot by the Lean Startup. Can you describe how that worked out, how you applied it?

We are working with Jeff Anderson from Deloitte who is using Lean start up to run the Kanban transformation which I thought was really cool because I had used Lean start up to launch a couple of products at a previous organization and Lean start up works great with uncertainty and organizational change is highly uncertain. It seems like a natural fit and the basic premise is do customer development on your changes first. Often change programs are done by people outside and they are asking other people to change, but they are not necessarily validating those are the right things to do in the first place. So, it is the most modern interpretation of plan-do-check-act and we found that it helped get people who we were asking to change involved in designing the change.


9. So you have started a concept and you wrote a book on describing Lean change. How does Lean change work?

Lean Change is exactly that – it is customer development applied to organizational change and it plucks tools from a bunch of different areas so some of the Agile camp say you should start with Kanban which is evolutionary, some say Scrum is better – rip the band aid off. The reality is that with so many organizations out there it is a little more complex than to say one method is better than the other. So Lean change management abstracts that stuff out and helps the organization figure out what they need to do and get them thinking about small changes. Don’t try to boil the ocean. Is your business case process the thing that is in the way the most? Can you replace your business case with a business model canvas. Is that a small change you can do? You do not have to ask to create cross-functional teams, you do not have to completely disrupt the organization. So, where is the leverage? Where is the support? Where is the resistance likely to come from? Involve those people in designing the change which reduces that threat response from them and constantly iterate. You do have a change strategy you start with and we have what we call a Lean change canvas which is essentially a business model canvas with Kotter’s change steps mapped on top of it. Actually, Kotter himself had a study that even with his method there is a 70% failure rate in change – that was back in 1995. I know it is a popular model in the Agile circles but there are so many other ones from the traditional world that can be pulled in. Lean change uses all of those types of elements to figure out what is going to make sense for where your organization is at and what is most likely to work.


10. You mentioned resistance in there. Maybe you can give some examples about how about that manifest itself and what people might do about it?

Sure. I am not a big fan of the term “resistance to change”. If you look at the recent state of the Agile survey from Version 1, I think no. 2 or no. 3 was general resistance to change which was why Agile failed. To me that is kind of a cop-out answer: we do not know what happened so we will just say that those bad people resist it. This is why Lean change also takes some ideas and models from the neuro science world and from psychology – so the Virgin Satir change model -, Scarf from David Rock to figure out what is happening in people’s brains when there are asked to change. Our brains are not our friends. Our brain cannot distinguish between social and physical threat, we react the same way and that manifests itself in resistance. So the way to deal with that is to involve those people and say “Here are our observations. Here is what we think. Here are some options for you. Which option do you think makes the most sense in your context.” Get them involved in designing it which helps build their sense of autonomy with the change, it reduces that fighter flight response and typically engages more people and if we do not see that engagement, then we will go somewhere else where the demand is because there are always pockets where there is more demand for wanting to bring new practices.

Todd: Maybe give us some examples of where you apply this, maybe sometimes where it was a success and sometimes where you saw it fail.

Yes. We tried a crazy idea to start projects red once and we took the same kind of customer development approach. We started just water cooler conversation with some of the PM’s: “What do you think about this idea?” The problem we were trying to solve was the same problem many organizations have: the status is red down here at the team level and then it is kind of yellow when it moves up and then it is green and then it is all polished by the time it gets to the top. The frustration there from the leaders in the organization was they did not feel they were getting the right the story. So we thought: “Well, let’s start projects red because when a project starts you have a fistful of money and an empty head”. So what do you do into trying to move that to green? Our hypothesis was that we wanted to see how people would react to that idea first, before we even created a minimum viable change to do it. We had minimal good feedback and a lot of it was just the big eyeballs going “Oh, no, no, no, no. That is going to disrupt the whole place”. So we just completely tabled that change. Whereas the more traditional approach would be to over plan that and design the process around it and all that type of stuff and then hit that wall. We knew we were going to hit that wall so we just said: “You know what? This is not the right thing to do right now. Let’s move on to something else.”


11. Is there an example of one where you did find that pocket that latched on?

Yes. With that starting projects red change - that was not going to work. We decided “Well, there is a lot of administration with status reports. We know that we have this massive Kanban board. Is there a way that we can use it to produce some status reports and reduce some of that administrative overhead?” What we did was we mocked up something, we took some video of it, just a quick walk through, and we sent it to all the stakeholders into the PMO. We said “What do you need to see on this board that will help you govern projects and manage your portfolio more effectively?” So we went through that feedback cycle and we implemented it. It evolved from a traditional Kanban board to more of a portfolio management board. That was a pretty big win and it went quickly because the previous stance was that we were going to design it, we are going to build it and then we are going to teach people how to use it. This one was: who needs to see what and how often did they need to see it and can it help them reduce some of their overhead in their department. That was it. So we found out who the customers were and we did it, we got their feedback and that worked quite well.

Todd: You mentioned that you videotaped it. Maybe you can tell us a little bit more about that.

So we had a fairly large area in the building that was our big visible room. We mocked it up with some tape and some markers and we put some fake data on it and then I just grabbed my I Phone and went through it and I said: “OK. Well, here is what is happening in this column. When you are on-boarding tickets here, here is the policy for it and then it is going to move into this state, which is our intake process that the portfolio team owns. Then over here we have got our team in project health where it is just some very simple stop light indicators for it. Here is how work is going to flow through, we will do stand up three times a week and maybe a portfolio in governance review once a month, posted it up on the Yammer site and sent it out to all the directors and managers and PMO and said “What do you think?”


12. An so pretty much all of them watched it and provided feedback?

Not everybody. But to try and get that many people in the room at the same time, that was a learning for us because when we were trying to do these changes we tried to schedule a meeting with fourteen managers and five directors and you cannot get these guys in a room at the same time. So let’s try their internal communication tools instead, give them a little bit and then see who comes back to give us information and then we will have one-on-one conversations. But for us, to make it more effective, like trying to reduce the waiting time to trying to get all these people together to make a decision.


13. What is next for you? What has gotten your interest and what is coming up?

I am very interested in the organizational development side of change so I have had a handful of people from more the traditional change management organizational development world from some companies that I am not allowed to talk about yet that are interested in applying some of these Lean change ideas in their traditional environments so we are kind of doing an idea exchange. I am trying to find out from them how they see this benefiting their organization, what type of problems they have now and what aspects of Lean change management do they think are going to work. Those case studies, as we go through them, come out in the book as well but for me it has been slowly migrating out of the Agile practices tools stuff and more into change, because that's overly what it is about: you are asking people to behave differently and sometimes that means culture change, sometimes that means that is the wrong stance to take, sometimes it is a process, but it is really to focus on making work more enjoyable for people by understanding how people process change themselves.


14. All right. And where could people find the information about your book?

It is available on There are a handful of blog posts up there. There is a link to the community site that Ardita and I put together as part of our session that has the whole bunch of pictures and examples of how we use the process. You can grab it by going to lean and if you know what a hash tag is, that is kind of a coupon for check out, so just take the little hash symbol out of what the Agile 2013 hash tag is and you'll get a discount on getting it.

Todd: All right. Thank you very much for joining us.

Thank you.

Feb 03, 2014